Edgar Meyer Aspen’s musical superhero
August 8, 2008
ASPEN About a month ago, I asked Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director of the Aspen Art Museum, if she had seen anything amazing lately. She thought a moment before a curious look crossed her face, then she told me about a bassist who had performed, solo, for a few minutes between speakers at the Aspen Ideas Festival.I asked if she knew who the musician was. She didnt, but I did. Was it Edgar Meyer? I asked. Thats it, she said. It was transcendent.More recently, I asked Zuckerman Jacobson to recall the experience of hearing Meyer, who had performed a movement from his own composition, Amalgamations, at the Ideas Festival. I was reading the program, not really focused on the music, she said. The next thing I knew, I was completely transfixed. It pulled my attention in a graceful and seductive way. It was an interlude between speakers, these intense topics, and its a time when people get water, go to the bathroom, check cell phones. But his music completely commanded the space.Despite her lack of familiarity with Meyer, a member of the faculty at the Aspen Music Festival and School and a former student at the school, Zuckerman Jacobsons description hit the target. Meyers musicianship does command attention: Fellow players speak of his abilities in reverent terms and there is an uncommon devotion among his listeners, especially locally, that makes Meyer something of a superhero at the Music Festival. (Janice Szabo, who handles public relations for the festival, asked me to pass along this message: Tickets for Meyers recital, with mandolinist Chris Thile, on Thursday, Aug. 13 at Harris Hall were in very limited supply as of last week. She didnt want the box office inundated with frustrated ticket buyers.)Particularly apt is the idea of transcendence. The 47-year-old Meyer has transcended the perceived limits of his instrument, the upright bass; he is the only bassist awarded the Avery Fisher Prize, which honors American classical musicians. He has transcended categories, in a variety of ways: Meyer is nearly as well-recognized as a composer as he is as an instrumentalist, and is as likely to appear at a bluegrass festival as he is in a concert hall. And there is a quality to his overall approach to music that even transcends music, and becomes more about the fundamental ideas of communication and connection.Edgar Meyer is the greatest living virtuoso of the instrument, said Christian McBride, who is generally acknowledged as the most accomplished jazz bassist of this era. The bassists collaborated for the first time in a magnificent Aspen recital last summer, that spanned jazz standards, folk-leaning tunes and classical passages. McBride, asked what he got out of working with Meyer, said, If nothing else, I know what it looks like to be a virtuoso. I know what to strive for. I know what a guy who can do anything on the instrument looks like.Another bassist, Bruce Bransby, was in attendance at that concert. Bransby, a former principal bassist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, guesses that hes never missed any of the special events performed by Meyer in the 20-plus years hes been on the faculty at the Aspen Music School. A jazz fan, Bransby calls it probably the best concert hes ever seen.Its safe to say he can do things nobody else does, he said. Hes great at the bluegrass stuff, which is probably what hes best known for. But Ive gone to concerts where hes played just classical, and its amazing. Bransby assumed that the pairing of Meyer and McBride was something of a novelty, that Meyer, not known for playing jazz, would mostly take turns with McBride doing solo pieces. But the fact that Edgar could stretch out and do the jazz stuff with a bow, I was amazed. I was convinced.
Bass, as it turns out, is not Meyers favorite instrument; given his druthers, he probably would have taken up violin. His principal bass-playing technique employs a bow, in the manner of a violinist. In 1999, he composed a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn, which she recorded with conductor Hugh Wolff and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and in 1982, while he was a student at the Aspen Music Festival, he took top honors in the fiddle competition at the Pitkin County Fair playing fiddle tunes on his bass. Meyer dabbles in other instruments as well; on his 2006 album Edgar Meyer, he plays all the instruments, including piano, dobro, guitar, mandolin and gamba, a bowed instrument, smaller than a bass, whose origin dates to the 15th century. (Meyer composed all the pieces for the CD as well.)But Meyers late father, also Edgar, was not only a bassist, but also his music teacher and orchestra director in elementary school and junior high. Meyer says that, while he was growing up in Tennessee, My identification with music and with my father was pretty total. I was in his orchestra class every day for eight years solid. So while the elder Edgar tried to persuade his son to take up violin, Meyer was adamant on following his father: He relented, and let me play bass at 5, he said. At a master class in Aspen several years ago, Meyer explained his relationship with the instrument thus: I am the bass.What Meyer surely didnt recognize as a 5-year-old were the limits of his instrument. The bass doesnt have the volume to cut through the sound of an orchestra; hence, the repertoire for bass as a solo instrument is minimal.But the lack of existing material has been turned into an advantage: If I had a repertoire, it would suck me in and I wouldnt be free to do all these other things, said Meyer, who has taken it upon himself to compose concertos for the bass. Perhaps even more daunting than the sonic and repertoire constraints was the absence of a template that Meyer could follow. For a bassist, the career opportunities, at least in the classical field, began and ended with orchestral positions. Even when he was starting out, Meyer knew that being a member of a bass section wasnt the trail he wanted to pursue.So he contemplated another field entirely, and entered Georgia Tech as a mathematics major. He worked as an intern at the Department of Energy-affiliated Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, helping physicists run math problems on computers that are primitive by current standards.I think I always knew I wanted a lot of freedom in my music. I didnt need to make a living [by playing music]. I didnt think it was dreadful to make a living some other way than music. I toyed with that idea more than the idea of being in an orchestra, said Meyer, whose fairly scant experience in orchestras came during his years as a student at the Aspen Music School, in 1982-83, and in his first years in Nashville, in the mid-80s. But I loved music more, and over time, it was the only thing that made sense. And if I could do it all the time, I realized I could do it better. But it took a few years before I put all that together.Meyer switched his major to music, and his school to Indiana University. There he discovered one of the key ingredients in the career he has invented, his bass teacher Stuart Sankey, who also would instruct Meyer in Aspen.When I was young, I played for several different, well-known bass teachers, and they always wanted to teach you their way to play, said Meyer. It was clear in 10 minutes that Stuart Sankey was trying to teach me the way to play how I play, and thats a very significant distinction. He had success with a much wider variety of students, and it was because of that.
Aspen is close to Meyers heart because he met his wife, Connie Heard, when the two played in the same orchestra here in the early 80s. Heard is now a member of the Aspen Music Schools violin faculty. The couples 15-year-old son, George, who had focused on mandolin, is currently studying violin in Aspen. The family has been spending large chunks of the summer here for the last few years, and Meyer is known to sit in with the local acoustic band, the Crowlin Ferlies, at the Double Dog Pub. Meyer has just one student this summer, but he gives master classes in bass, and also does a session each summer with composition students. (When I ran into Sydney Hodkinson, a composer-in-residence in Aspen, and mentioned Meyer, he said of his students in that class, Their lights went on. They had never seen anything like him.)It also was in Aspen that one of Meyers key musical relationships kicked into gear. In 1982, banjoist Bla Fleck who also had wildly ambitious ideas with what could be accomplished on his instrument was in town for the Pitkin County Fair. Strolling around town, he heard some low notes coming from outside the old Hagen-Dazs shop. Investigating the source, he found Meyer, whom he had met briefly at the Station Inn, an acoustic music venue in Nashville. The two struck up a jam session, and a friendship. When Meyer made his first recording under his name, which would be released in 1986 as Unfolding, Fleck performed on it, and helped bring in two acquaintances, dobroist Jerry Douglas and fiddler Mark OConnor.Meyer would release four early albums under his name, all using that same core of players. Eventually the quintet, rounded out by mandolinist Sam Bush, solidified as a group, Strength in Numbers. The band, which started with a bluegrass foundation and took it in a variety of directions, had a relatively brief run of three years and just one album, 1989s The Telluride Sessions. Still, that project remains the essential formative experience for Meyer.Those four people had a bigger impact on me than anything else, said Meyer. A lot of my idea of music is just the way those guys play. The guitar-less instrumentation freed up the bottom end and made it slightly less of a straight-up bluegrass thing.Sam and Jerry are both a little in the force of nature department: When they take things on, its almost the definition of how you do that. They do it, and you think it had to be that way.From OConnor, the violinist, Meyer learned about bringing a bowed instrument beyond the classical realm. Finding my voice on bass, and primarily with a bow, started out early for me, said Meyer, who, with OConnor and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, recorded the acclaimed albums Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey in the 90s. And Mark is without peer. There is no more remarkable example of how to use a violin outside of classical music. Most of what he did ends up not working on bass, but it got me started in the right direction.Meyers most enduring, and in-depth dialogue has been with Fleck. The two have collaborated on a series of projects, including Music for Two, a 2004 album of duets; and Uncommon Ritual, a 1997 trio album with mandolinist Mike Marshall. Meyer and Fleck have made several appearances as a duo in Aspen in recent years.
Meyer has earned a pair of Grammy Awards in the Classical Crossover category: for Appalachian Journey, and for Perpetual Motion, a 2001 album credited to Fleck, but which Meyer produced, co-arranged and played on. (In addition to the Avery Fisher award, given to American classical musicians, Meyers trophy case also includes the MacArthur Genius Fellowship; in both cases he is the only bassist so honored.) But crossover has got to be one of Meyers least-favorite terms. To him, it suggests that there are two very distinct things say, bluegrass and classical and he is making the varying styles accessible by straddling the genres, taking bits of classical and elements of string-band music and fusing them as in a science project.Meyer, however, sees it differently. To him, there are no definitive boundaries between musical styles; his music is a synthesis of the enormous range of sounds he has explored and taken in, including classical, jazz and folk, improvised and composed music, and the result is an original, organic form of string music, not a calculated pastiche of genres.It is impossible to deny, though, that Meyer appeals to several distinct audiences. His concert this week is certain to fill Harris Hall with a different demographic than would attend the standard Aspen recital. And in classical musics quest to claim relevance as well as an audience under the age of 50 Meyer and his music are an invaluable asset.He is the ideal, said Alan Fletcher, the president of the Aspen Music Festival and a composer. Everything thats said about the boundaries of classical music opening the door, crossing genres the big question is, are they going to lose the excellence? Is it going to be any good? And then you throw Edgar out there and you have no worries. He lives and breathes all kinds of classical music.For all his love of traditional classical music his love of classical remains rooted in Beethoven, Mozart and especially Bach Meyer sees problems in repertoire that is centuries old, and that continues to be performed by hundreds of musicians and orchestras. Meyer is diplomatic in the extreme, and sensitive to the cause of classical music, but he suggests that classical music is unlikely to live and breathe and grow like the music he made in Strength in Numbers.They were using the real elements of music to draw people in. They tried things, they wanted to see how the audience reacted. It evolved, he said. Sometimes thered be a groove so deep that you couldnt deny it was something that people wanted to hear. It was music in evolution, and it was fundamentally important for me to be around and watch the music evolve and watch what all the other guys were involved in.Theres an element of classical music thats fairly static. People in classical music will hate me for saying so … but its true.Maybe what Meyer is doing isnt crossing over from one genre to another, but pushing outward the possibilities of classical music, and thus expanding the definition of the genre. At the forefront of his mind is incorporating improvisation into composed music in ways that make artistic sense.Meyer has pursued that interest from the beginning of his career, and with virtually all of his collaborators. He may be reaching the next plateau in that endeavor, however, in his partnership with Thile. Meyer first worked with the mandolinist, best known for his membership in the forward-looking acoustic trio Nickel Creek, on Not All Who Wander Are Lost, Thiles 2001 solo album. The following year, Meyer contributed to Nickel Creeks This Side album.Thile says that Meyer has been possibly the biggest influence on his own desire to expand musical boundaries. Listening first to Skip, Hop & Wobble, an album by Meyer, Jerry Douglas and guitarist Russ Barenberg, and then Strength in Numbers, said Thile, opened up this world, the improvising musician with serious ties to formal music.Thile demonstrated his uncanny ability to play Bach solo partitas on mandolin in a Nickel Creek performance two summers ago in Snowmass Village. My favorite thing in the whole world is the well-integrated, the musician who can combine the precision, the detail of a formal musician with the fire of an improvising musician. Edgars one of the greatest examples of that.Thile and Meyer have been pursuing that ideal for several years, touring as a duo every year or so. This weeks concert in Aspen is the first for the duo since January 2007, and the first since they recorded their debut duo CD, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile, due out on the Nonesuch label on Sept. 16.This is as much what I do as anything will ever be. Its the overlap in what our interests are, said Meyer. Im learning worlds from Chris. Hes doing what youre supposed to do when youre 27 hes playing better than the old guys. Hes setting a new bar technically.The other major focus of Meyers musical life is the trio he formed with Fleck and Zakir Hussain, an Indian-born, San Francisco-based tabla player. The three co-composed a triple concerto for the 2006 opening of Schermerhorn Symphony Center, the venue for Meyers hometown orchestra, the Nashville Symphony. Meyer is spending much of this summer composing music for the trio, thus entering yet another musical world.I think over a period of time, that will change my life in the same way as those four guys [in Strength in Numbers], he said. Bla and I are in way over our heads with that and me a lot more than Bla. It forces me to improve at a rate that youd expect to do when youre in your 20s.Meyers projects for the near future include composing a horn-and-strings piece for French horn player David Jolley, and creating music he wants to perform in a duo with pianist Emanuel Ax.I asked Meyer if there were any unfulfilled musical fantasies he had, and he said no. He couldnt imagine topping the opportunities he currently has, working with Fleck, Thile, Hussain and the like.Then he reconsidered, and revealed his dream of developing a solo bass show just him and the bass.I cant decide if thats a good thing or not, he said. I dont know if I can make it work or not. I might have to write longer and more substantial pieces. And it might break the bank. Listening to solo, unaccompanied bass for an hour and a half, that might be asking too much of people.Or not. Two summers ago, Meyer played a recital at Harris Hall with Amy Dorfman accompanying him on piano. But the show also featured several solo numbers, and the crowd didnt seem to mind hearing nothing more than a man and his bass.Meyer mesmerized a packed Harris Hall, making his bass do things that should not be humanly possible, raved Harvey Steiman in his review in The Aspen Times.firstname.lastname@example.org